By Pat Garber
Paddling along the shoreline of Ocracoke Island, I saw an armor-clad knight waving from a hummock of spartina grass. I stopped and stared in shock, then bewilderment, before raising my binoculars to examine this strange, apparently alive apparition. Realization came quickly.
I was looking at a group of silvery helium balloons, tied together, caught in the branches of a dead cedar and swaying in the breeze. These balloons, which would probably find their way into Pamlico Sound, were part of a huge and ever-increasing disaster threatening North Carolina’s marine environment- -plastic pollution.
In the water balloons resemble jelly fish, which are a favorite food of sea turtles. When sea turtles mistakenly eat them, they die. Plastic bags and bottles can also be deadly to marine life.
Of equal concern is the proliferation of discarded monofilament, or plastic fishing line, which finds its way into our waters to ensnare dolphins, water birds and other wildlife. Off the coast of North Carolina lies what is known as the North Atlantic Gyre, a large system of rotating ocean currents whose center lies near Bermuda.
Within its waters, drawn in by the currents, lies what Lisa Rider, coordinator of the NC Marine Debris Symposium, describes as a plastic soup. This floating mass of plastic is in both our oceans. The plastic crisis is growing worse, she says. Not only bags and bottles, but also straws, spoons and fast-food containers add to the deadly mix. Cigarette butts, which contain plastic in their filters, are the majority of the plastic litter. No naturally occurring organisms break down the polymers in plastic, she says. So, they never biodegrade.
The sun may break them down into tiny pieces called micro-plastics, which makes them even more dangerous, as they are more easily consumed by marine organisms.Bonnie Monteleone, a marine plastic scientist with the UNC Wilmington Plastic Ocean Project, says that plastics constitute about 90 percent of the trash floating in the ocean.
Plastic in marine waters, she explains, acts like sponges, absorbing PCBs, DDT and other “nasty chemicals,” many of which are now illegal but still remain in the environment as part of the plastics. Small fish that consume these plastics are eaten by larger fish, which may in turn be eaten by humans.
We may inadvertently be consuming toxins which have been prohibited for decades.
While industrial and agricultural plastics pose problems, most of the focus is on what are called single-use plastics, particularly plastic drink bottles and plastic bags.
According to Ethan Crouch, chairman of the “Carolina Beach Plastic Bag Committee,” plastic bags have a 20-minute lifespan for consumer use. They are the cause of death, however, for approximately 100,000 marine mammals each year.
Scott Mouw, of the NC Division of Environment and Natural Resources, oversees the state recycling program. Their main concern is making sure that plastic bottles and other recyclables are collected and distributed to the recycling centers. Otherwise they end up in the ocean or in landfills. There is a statewide ban on depositing plastic bottles in landfills, but he says that it is very difficult to enforce. Mouw adds that while recycling is their main function, they also encourage source reduction, which means producing fewer plastics.
Among their recommendations is replacing plastic bags with re-usable shopping bags and plastic bottles with refillable water bottles.The North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort is working with other organizations to protect marine life from ensnarement by collecting and recycling monofilament fishing line.
A collection bin on Ocracoke is at the public boat ramp, and Tradewinds Tackle Shop, which replaces fishing line on rods, saves discarded line for recycling.Recycled monofilament is sent to the Pure Fishing Company in Iowa, where it is cleaned, melted down, and turned into tackle boxes, fish habitats and toys. Last year, 1,100 miles of fishing line were recycled in North Carolina last year.
A newly released study, conducted by the University of Plymouth and Natural History Museum, found that there was even more plastic pollution than previously suspected.
According to Dr. Lucy Woodal, “plastic waste is breaking down into fibers, invisible to the naked eye, and sinking to the sea floor.” These fibers number up to four times greater than in shallow or coastal waters.Scientists estimate that there are a total of 269,000 tons of plastics in the world’s oceans. Thinking about the disturbing statistics, I paddled my kayak to the shore.
I pulled it onto the sand and trudged through the grass and debris to the balloon-ensconced tree. I pulled down the balloons and picked up a plastic water bottle and broken Styrofoam container along the way. It wasn’t much, but at least I had taken a small step in reducing the pollution, and and maybe
saving a life.